Chinese smartphone maker OnePlus has had the shine taken off its latest launches with tests that indicate it is once again trying to fiddle the figures on benchmark results, throttling real-world performance considerably compared to synthetic workloads.
OnePlus hit the market in 2014 with the launch of the OnePlus One, under the tagline "Never Settle". Designed to be a flagship phone priced as a mid-range device, the handset was the first to launch with third-party Android fork CyanogenMod as standard.
Sales have been strong, no thanks to supply issues and an initial but since-abandoned invite-only purchase model, and the success gave the company cause to abandon CyanogenMod in favour of building its own Android fork, dubbed OxygenOS.
OnePlus is now up to the OnePlus 9, and its more expensive OnePlus 9 Pro stablemate, but members of the company's faithful congregation don't seem to be getting what they were promised: the company has been fiddling benchmark results, making the handsets seem more powerful than they are in daily use.
First spotted by AnandTech, the problem lies in how the handsets balance performance and power draw. As with most mobile devices, the OnePlus 9 family adjust the voltage and clock speed of their processors in order to maximise battery life. When you're not doing much, the processor is down-clocked to save power; fire up a game or other demanding application and the processor roars into life.
At least, that's how it's supposed to work. What OnePlus has allegedly been doing, it transpires, is hard-coding a variety of applications into its throttling logic – having them run at a lower-than-usual performance level while excluding common benchmarking apps in order to provide a false but impressive-sounding readout of the handsets' day-to-day speeds.
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Testing has found that the majority of apps have their performance limited on the handsets, including web browsers – with the top-end OnePlus 9 Pro pushing around a quarter of the performance of its rival ZenFone 8 in an in-browser benchmark. Dedicated benchmarking apps, alongside selected games, appear exempt from the throttling – giving an overinflated impression of how fast the phone will be in general use.
"It's disappointing to see OnePlus handsets making performance decisions based on application identifiers rather than application behaviour. We view this as a form of benchmark manipulation," benchmarking site Geekbench announced via Twitter following the discovery. "We've delisted the OnePlus 9 and OnePlus 9 Pro from our Android Benchmark chart.
"We will also test the other OnePlus handsets in our performance lab to see if these handsets also manipulate performance in the same way. If they do, we will delist them from the Android Benchmark chart."
The problem even extends to screen refresh rates. The company's latest handsets come with the promise of a 120Hz display, but the majority of Android browsers are artificially limited to a 60Hz refresh rate – unless the user is willing to fiddle around with hidden settings to unlock the promised performance.
The really embarrassing thing for OnePlus: this isn't even the first time it's been caught doing exactly the same thing. The company was first found to be cheating benchmarks back in 2017 on its OnePlus 3 and OnePlus 5 devices.
At the time, OnePlus co-founder Cal Pei defended the move. "When users run benchmark apps – which I agree aren't a useful proxy for real-life performance – we believe that they want to see the full potential of their device without interference from tampering," Pei claimed without a trace of irony. "That's what we've unlocked."
The company's customers have had other cause for complaint, too. Concerns were raised with about the amount of data gathered and siphoned off to OnePlus's native China, the discovery of a backdoor to root on its handsets, a clipboard app which phoned home, a breach of its website responsible for the theft of 40,000 credit card details, and a camera that could see through clothes – though the fix for the last likely left a fair few pervs sorely disappointed.
OnePlus did not respond to a request for comment from El Reg, but did provide one to mobile-centric site XDA which skirts the issue – claiming the differences spotted by reviewers is down to a post-launch firmware update designed to "improve the devices' battery life and heat management." The behaviour's confirmed presence on launch-day hardware, though, brings that claim into question. ®